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“Leo,” a formulaic but satisfying Indian remake of “A History of Violence,” both is and isn’t exactly what it looks like. You won’t be disappointed if you’re expecting a boisterous, bloody, and bass-heavy action musical about a coffee shop owner who must protect his wife and kids from a paranoid drug dealer who claims that our family man is actually a vicious ex-gangster. “Leo” is otherwise business as usual, especially if you see it for Tamil-language speaking star Vijay, as many opening day ticketholders already have.
Vijay’s last few action movies have also served as overstuffed showcases for the chipmunk-cheeked leading man. Vijay (“Beast,” “Varisu”), a former child actor, still doesn’t have much range, but he doesn’t really need to. He’s an action star, and he looks good whenever he’s dispatching scads of heavies with his feet, fists, and various mallets and blades. (Action choreographer/stunt coordinator duo Abumani and Arivumani are credited with planning the movie’s “Action” under their “Anbariv” stage name.)
Vijay looks less at ease whenever he tries to make a multidimensional character out of cafe owner/animal rescuer Parthiban, though his discomfort only adds tension to his character’s identity crisis. Reteaming with “Master” writer/director Lokesh Kanagaraj, Vijay once again asserts his all-utility qualifications: he can wrestle a computer-generated hyena into submission, lead a warehouse full of extras in a (mostly fine) dance number, and even punch drug dealer Antony Das (Sanjay Dutt) through the air and into a Land Rover.
Vijay’s drive to affect any mood, style, or pose isn’t unusual for such a popular and charismatic marquee topper. Still, it is striking to see Vijay, still eternally youthful despite his fastidiously stylized beard’s skunk streaks, play a character who protests this much whenever he’s confronted with his killer reputation. There’s even an anthemic song that, in a couple of scenes, suggests that “Mr. Leo Das is a badass.” So, who does Vijay think he’s fooling?
Parthiban, thankfully, doesn’t need to be believable as anything other than a pretext for melodramatic fireworks. In character, Vijay appears convincing enough as a stern but loving dad to pouty pre-teen Mathi (Iyal) and polite adolescent Siddharth (Mathew Thomas), as well as a doting but paternal husband to Sathya (Trisha). Some incidental details suggest that, in the town of Theog, Parthiban has a reputation as “an ordinary person, yeah, just a peace lovin’ soul,” as one song goes. Vijay’s still more convincing when he’s inexplicably—but efficiently!—dispatching wave after wave of violent baddies, all of whom either assume Parthiban’s actually Leo Das, Antony’s estranged son, or simply have no clue who they’re dealing with.
A good part of what makes “Leo” so charming is that it’s already so familiar, both for its something-for-everyone mood swings and its pulpy stock plot. There’s no satirical edge here, not like there was in the movie version of “A History of Violence.” But that’s to be expected in a vehicle for a star who, when his character tries to win over his young daughter, dances to the strains of “Thanmani Pookkun” from Tamil icon Prabhu’s 1995 romantic drama “Pasumpon.” In another scene, we hear relatively modern movie music from the 2005 Vijay crime drama “Thirupaachi,” which further hints at “Leo”’s cinematic lineage.
If you already know Vijay, you probably also know what he’s capable of. He reminds us in “Leo” during fight scenes, most of which are composed and cut as dynamically as they are choreographed. Vijay also lightly tests viewers’ expectations whenever Parthiban laments or protests that he couldn’t possibly be Leo. Don’t listen to that song, no matter how many times it’s played: how could you ever doubt that face?
As with many action stars, Vijay’s presence creates its own reality-defying standards of normalcy. In a voiceover aside, he suggests that he (Parthiban) must believe in himself first to be more convincing to everyone else. That’s the nature of this type of movie, whose baggy pacing might still test the patience of anyone who just wants to watch Vijay stab a hyena and maybe also gawk at Sanjay Dutt, I mean Antony Das, as he sacrifices a goat at his Satanic-looking shrine, complete with a pentacle and giant bird of prey statue. Anything can be normal if you’re already invested.
Vijay’s performance is sometimes a little too strained, especially when Parthiban/Leo’s emotional outbursts have to bring a scene to a new level of emotional intensity. Then again, nonchalance doesn’t suit Vijay. He seems to care too much even when he, in character, casually blows away a few more non-descript baddies. If you’re watching “Leo,” it should be to see Vijay show off in between animal attacks, car flips, and celebrity cameos. And even if you don’t expect much from “Leo,” it still might give you exactly what you need.
In theaters now.